Food Marketing: The cost to perpetuate childhood obesity


November 12, 2012 by catherinecoughlin

Food Marketing. If you’ve ever watched TV you know that food marketing comprises quite a bit of airtime. But good news! Unhealthy food and beverage advertisements geared towards adolescents have fallen in the past ten years! Fallen all the way down to a whopping 86% (from 94%) of all food-related television advertisements being for products high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium (4). Encouraging? Not so much. I do not have children but I can just imagine how this type of food-marketing saturation plays out in the grocery stores…And it brings up the justified concern over whether this type of food marketing is correlated to the childhood obesity epidemic. For this reason, food marketing regulations are currently under debate.

On one side of the argument, representing “team health,” is the administration whose stated goal is to combat childhood obesity. Children are inexplicably a more vulnerable population compared to other age groups thus extensive marketing campaigns such as those that can able carried out by major food producers are effective at influencing their target population. As stated in a 2008 FTC study on food marketing, $113 million (or approximately 70% of all food marketing directed at children 12 and under) fell under three categories that do not exactly constitute the healthy end of the spectrum. Restaurant food, primarily fast food children’s meals, accounted for $521 million in marketing expenditures, $229 million was spent on breakfast cereal, and $113 million was spend on snack foods such as chips, cookies, and processed fruit snacks (2). Again, these marketing campaigns were directed at children under 12.

The industry claims that the proposed (voluntary, I might add) initiative to regulate food marketing to children and adolescents is a “backdoor regulation” that will not only result in a huge loss of profit due to the near elimination of advertising to children, but opponents capitalize on the current economic situation and cite the potential elimination of millions of jobs with the passage of this initiative. One non-supporter of the bill worries “that restrictions could cut jobs” in an already unstable environment (1). Critics of the plan have been pushing for regulators to consider what it would cost to reformulate the products under the proposal. They also say the administration has failed to make a direct link between the marketing of products and childhood obesity (1).  Industry has also claimed that food-marketing restriction is an infringement on commercial free speech (1).

We live in a capitalist society so there will always be a financial two sides to any argument, and industry (the opponents in this case), do bring up some valid concerns. Maybe instead of splitting hairs over what and how to regulate marketing of unhealthy foods, we impose stipulations on advertisers that for every given number of unhealthy advertisements they run, they must market a healthier product, such as baby carrots, apple slices, grapes, or plain, lowfat milk. And no, “Who-Nu Cookies” do not constitute a healthier product.



1. ElBoghdady, Dina. “Lawmakers want cost-benefit-analyses on child food marketing restrictions,” The Washington Post.

2. Federal Trade Commission Report: Interagency Working Group Proposal on Food Marketing to Children

3.  Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (since 2006)

4. Lisa Powell, Rebecca Schermbeck, Glen Szczypka, Frank Chaloupka, Carol Braunschweig. (Dec 2011). “Trends in the Nutritional Content of TV Food Advertisements Seen by Children in the US,” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165(12):1078-1086


6 thoughts on “Food Marketing: The cost to perpetuate childhood obesity

  1. needsblogger says:

    Restricting marketing of unhealthy foods in order to help stop childhood obesity seems reasonable to me. You can make an argument about economic impact. You can also make an argument that restricting cigarette marketing has an economic impact. That’s the point. Those are products we want to sell less of because they’re not good for you. We as a society have to make decisions about what is important to us. Those decisions often have tradeoffs. To me, our health seems much more valuable. And, if you wanted an economic argument in favor of more restrictions: what’s the cost in health care down the road if we don’t?

  2. brooksy says:

    I really like your idea about having corporations take responsibility for advertising healthier foods if they want to market their own products. I think fruits and veggies end up getting left out of every marketing scheme because there’s no money to fund it. Wouldn’t it be cool if a company like Kraft or Nabisco would make grocers place their products in the produce section while promoting the fruits and veggies so people would have to pass through the section and notice those baby carrots to compliment that salad dressing display?
    I think the key to increasing healthy food consumption is to encourage collaboration between public health and the industry. If both sides are in agreement that the issue is important (whether it’s for health reasons or sales increase), then there is no argument to be made. So saying things like it’s an infringement on a company’s rights, or that jobs will be lost, or that there is no proof that marketing increases childhood obesity become moot points. Evidence doesn’t matter because companies are willing to make these changes if it helps their sales. Everyone is happy, but not because they bought Happy Meals. That’s false advertising.

  3. amittnac says:

    Catherine, What a great post!! Very informative (and funny)!! I love your idea of requiring the industry to market a healthy product for every given number of unhealthy advertisements that they run… When I think of working with industry to address these changes, my mind continues to come back to this idea of profit gain/loss. Is there a way to increase healthy food marketing/manufacturing, decrease unhealthy food marketing/manufacturing, AND help companies increase their profits/ possibly create jobs??? One idea would be to have a 1-year advertising competition, where companies compete for the best healthy food advertisement. The competition would involve viewers (kids), as they would be the one’s voting. The winning company would receive free TV advertisement slots (or something of that nature), and every kid that voted would receive a free package of whatever the advertised healthy product is. Another idea- there is something to be said about companies being viewed as “ socially responsible marketers” because their product advertisements aim to increase “ societal and environmental” wellbeing (1)… this in it’s self could increase profits- and be the answer to all of our problems…

    1. Cohen, Michael A, and Rui Huang. “Corporate Social Responsibility for Kids’ Sake: A Dynamic Model of Firm Participation.” (2012): n. page. Print

    • catherinecoughlin says:

      I love the idea of a competition! Great idea. As public health advocates we could encourage (or voluntarily “force,” similar to the aforementioned initiative) industry to participate in a healthy commercial competition and have young viewers vote for their favorite commercial. Kind of a like an American Idol for Food Marketers. This guarantees the industry facetime with their target audience for one of their products, plus lands them a gold star for being “socially responsible,” which I agree with you is definitely a marketable, positive label for food companies. Plus a competition helps to ensure that food marketers put forth their best, or at least a decent, effort because who doesn’t like to play to win?

  4. jaherber says:

    Catherine, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Your writing style is very captivating. I too feel as though the food company’s block of a voluntary initiative speaks volumes for their true level of commitment. However, I am going to cautiously temper my pessimism, since they have at least opened themselves up to the possibility of change. Your idea of a ratio of healthy commercials to unhealthy ones struck me as a very fascinating idea. It made me begin to think of ways in which a “healthy” (pun intended) compromise could be reached in an effort to make the corporate folks happy while also ushering in better visual choices for kids. In an online article titled,” Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing”, there is mention that companies such as Burger King and Mars Candies are now utilizing celebrities and popular cartoon characters in short webisodes in order to attract young viewers to their products. The article sites one brand marketer as saying, “the targeting we can do is phenomenal.” If that is truly the case, then I say we expand your television commercial idea to these online webisodes and media streams. Create a ratio of healthy media to that of the unhealthy product being marketed. This may be a stretch, but why not? If the targeting can be done so well, why can’t they use their expertise to help in promoting a healthy choice? It won’t hinder their message, but it will at least let the kids know that it is also “cool” to eat healthy.

    1. “Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age.” Available at:

  5. amberpulaski says:

    I agree with the posters above; you have a great blogging style, Catherine. I love the idea of finding a way to require companies to market healthy foods along with “junk” food. Of course, it gets tricky, because corporations are considered “people”, and corporations claim that marketing regulations infringe on their rights to free speech. However, perhaps we could incentivize companies to market healthy foods without making it a requirement. Perhaps the government could provide a monetary incentive for advertisements promoting healthy foods. The government could provide a tax break for companies that spent a designated percentage of their advertising budget on healthy food advertisements.

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